How the near-death experience of his baby son utterly changed the way this doctor practises medicine... and the simple steps he says could help transform your health
Reaching millions of viewers every week through his hit TV show, Dr Rangan Chatterjee stresses the importance of wellbeing through four basic commandments: Relax, Eat, Move, Sleep. Orla Neligan meets the ‘Dr McDreamy’ who hopes to inspire, not moralise, with his new book on healthy living — just don’t call it a diet book.
Dr Rangan Chatterjee is probably the last man you want to bump into with a hangover. He bounces out of the lift like a gazelle in pursuit, flops down on the couch in front of me and orders a herbal tea.
At a towering 6ft 6in with a leanness to rival that of any professional athlete, he is the poster child for his new book The 4 Pillar Plan — a bible for a longer, healthier life. Casually dressed in jeans, T-shirt and suit jacket, he is cool, literally and metaphorically in that handsome, off-duty TV doctor way. He is also charming, polite, friendly, enthusiastic, animated and, maybe, too good to be true? “I do live a healthy life but I’m also pragmatic about it and allow myself indulgences,” he assures me. Phew, I was beginning to feel guilty about the bar of Dairy Milk in my bag.
It’s a cold January day, a month of mass puritanism and regret for the boxes of chocolates and vats of wine that sustained us through Christmas. Everywhere we look there’s hopeful quick fixes that promise to rid us of our bad habits. A glance at the bestseller book list is a barometer for the general mood: of the top 20 books there’s at least eight championing the virtues of healthy eating, diets, cleansing and better ways to live your life. Which is why, when Chatterjee’s book comes through my door I feel a little jaded at the thought of my growing volume of similar tomes — but further reading deduces that this volume stands out among the glut of books in the wellness gold rush.
Chatterjee’s years of experience as a doctor and his simple, accessible interventions cut through the ‘noise’ and make this book ‘achievable’. It’s not preachy but insightful. It’s not a diet or a fitness book but, instead, takes a panoramic view of your health. “I think it takes the pressure off people in that it’s not about being perfect; I want the book to be a blueprint on how to live well in the modern world. Health is a big industry and has become too complicated. We need to get back to basics. We need to keep it simple.”
Instead of writing that quick prescription, appointments might take a little longer. After all, no research paper or book is going to tell you exactly what to do with a patient in front of you. Everyone is unique with a complex set of factors, he explains. “The way we are collectively living our modern lifestyles is having a negative impact on how we feel. The book shines a light on that, giving people simple tools to cope and get themselves to better health.”
Split into four key areas — Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep — the book is designed to be a whole-life plan rather than a quick-fix gimmick and follows the premise that our body does not simply adhere to a reductionist philosophy so often set out by textbooks, but that it is completely interconnected.
As a result we need to look at as many factors as possible when examining what creates wellness or illness. How we sleep, eat, work, exercise and relax is all interlinked. Simple interventions like a daily practice of stillness and reclaiming your dining table — eating one meal a day around a table without an e-device — have proven to be seminal to people’s good health. He cites a family he was visiting who had fallen into bad habits, eating high processed foods in separate rooms while on their phones. He proposed they eat one meal a day together at a table without e-devices. The dynamic changed, they were communicating more and eating better.
Chatterjee’s aim is to inspire rather than moralise and in person, he is no different. Many will recognise the 40-year-old, from Oldham in Manchester, from his BBC show Doctor in the House. He is enormously proud of the show, a format that allowed him to live with families to uncover the issues around their wellbeing and health. Not only did it help transform him into one of the most recognisable doctors here as well as in the UK, (with the nickname Dr McDreamy), but he has helped thousands of people.
One of the most challenging cases was that of a mum of two who was getting up to 80 ‘suicide headaches’ a week. Using his four-pillar plan, Chatterjee reduced the headaches to fewer than five a week in just two months. “I’ve been a GP for 17 years and seen thousands of patients but the TV work made me realise that if five million people watch each episode and just 1% make a change, that’s 50,000 people,” he says wide-eyed.
“I became a doctor to help people and I have this opportunity to impact how people feel about their health. It doesn’t matter what the condition is, by applying small changes in key areas, you can get results.”
But it wasn’t just his foray into television that spurred his decision to change the way he practised medicine. His son’s near-death experience at six months old left him searching for more answers. While on holidays in France his son stopped breathing. “I thought he was choking and turned him over to clear his airway but nothing happened. We rushed him to hospital and it turned out he was vitamin D deficient, something completely avoidable. As a doctor I was riddled with guilt and started my own research.
“Modern medicine saved his life but nobody taught me that a lack of vitamin D, while his immune system was developing, could have significant consequences. What I learnt in medical school was fantastic for acute disease but not as good for chronic diseases, which we’re seeing so much of these days. Doctors need a bigger tool kit.”
A few years into his career as a GP he had what you could consider a eureka moment. A 16-year-old boy who had been self-harming came to see him. It was the end of the day, he could have easily written him a prescription for an anti-depressant and gone home. After a long discussion, the boy confessed to spending a lot of his time on social media and, as a result, was struggling with his confidence and getting depressive episodes. The doctor asked him to limit his exposure to technology and switch his phone off an hour before bed and if he didn’t start to feel better, he’d write him that prescription.
“I never wrote him the prescription, thankfully,” says Chatterjee, who admits that, up to that point, he had been helping about 20% of patients, putting sticking plasters on problems but not really getting to the root cause. “Doctors don’t get taught the science of lifestyle or nutrition and I believe the body needs to be seen as a connected whole.”
With modern-day lifestyles come modern-day fixes and a sea of information making it hard for people to decipher what’s actually good for you and what isn’t. So, what does he think is the biggest misconception about wellness? “That there is one true diet that’s going to work for everyone and you have to find the one that works for you. I don’t buy it,” he says emphatically.
“Obviously there are things like minimally processed foods that are always better, that’s a given. But I think it’s unnatural to worry so much about carbs, sugar or protein. It’s a far too reductionist view of health. It’s why I’ve given equal amount of space to each pillar in the book.”
Although all pillars are equally important, he considers stress to be the one causing the most damage among his patients. “It’s not that it’s more important by any means, but I see so many illnesses and conditions linked directly to stress. If you think about it on an intuitive level, when we’re stressed we don’t often make good choices about food or lifestyle. It’s also a huge factor in why people can’t lose weight.
“When our stress hormone cortisol is raised continuously, our bodies think we’re under attack and hold on to weight. Just recently I had a patient who was overweight — she changed her diet and started exercising but still wasn’t losing weight. She was extremely stressed and lived a very fast-paced lifestyle. I encouraged her to take 15 minutes a day to herself to relax and meditate. Within four weeks she was sleeping better and had lost a stone.”
This is just one of thousands of positive stories peppered throughout the book and it would be hard not to feel inspired at the end of it. But what of those people who are struggling with starting or maintaining the plan? “Take the pressure off yourself. Strip it back to one thing in each pillar or even just one pillar. It’s not about doing 20 suggestions; just pick a few that fit with your lifestyle. It’s the little things you do everyday that become your habits and those habits become your health, so start small.
“If you struggle with mindfulness, start with five minutes a day. If you struggle with what you eat, change when you eat. If the gym isn’t your thing then try my 15-minute kitchen workout, at home, in your own clothes with nobody watching. It can be that simple.” As a busy working mum, I, like so many others, battle with finding time for myself in my day. He sympathises. Of all the pillars, it’s the one that challenges him the most, too.
“Unfortunately, I can’t change people’s lifestyles but daily relaxation is as important as food, movement and sleep. You need to make a proactive decision to prioritise it. It takes five minutes to wash your teeth so what if you gave the same time to meditating in your day?” That doesn’t seem too taxing and yet it’s the one that most people ignore.
His ‘downtime’ takes the form of cooking, preferably with his favourite album playing. He is also the lead singer and guitar player in a band and took a year off practising medicine to tour with them. No surprise that if he had three more hours in his day it would be spent writing and playing music.
Despite his positive persona and well-oiled mental status quo, his biggest fear is something he himself finds hard to live without. “Social media and technology,” he says, eyes rolling. “It didn’t exist 15 years ago and we didn’t have the same stresses. We used to have demarcation between home and work life. That’s gone. I fear greatly for my kids and the impact technology may have on them, especially since everyday I see what it’s doing to patients. I try to practise a no-screen Sunday and put the phone away 90 minutes before going to bed. You’d be surprised the incredible difference that makes to people’s mental health.”
According to Chatterjee, technology is a huge contributing factor to the current sleep-deprived epidemic. Since his kids are dawn risers, he has prioritised sleep and describes the results as ‘life changing’. It’s not rocket science: he goes to bed earlier and wakes before them gaining an extra few minutes to himself in his day.
His family are healthy eaters but he is quick to add that it’s partly as a result of a no-junk policy. “I won’t lie, it’s hard,” he laughs. “Just before Christmas I was rooting through the cupboards for something sweet forgetting I’d rid the kitchen of any sugar. But the craving went away 10 minutes later.”
The minute we walk out the door we are bombarded with temptation and so it comes down to controlling the environment we are in, he explains. If he falls off the wagon, he does it in style with a very large meringue.
Sugar is hidden where you least expect it and so it follows that we consume too much of it. Part of his ‘Eat’ chapter is dedicated to de-normalising sugar where it goes back to being an occasional treat as opposed to an everyday norm. I ask whether his ‘Eat’ chapter is essentially just a diet. On this he is emphatic. “It’s just good healthy eating principles to live by. I don’t demonise anything. I’m encouraging people to eat five vegetables a day and eat within an eight-hour window of time among other principles. I would respectfully disagree with anyone who says that’s a diet.”
With new-found fame comes criticism surrounding his holistic thinking and methods. He has had to ‘respectfully disagree’ with internet trolls quite a lot. His role as TV’s much-loved live-in doctor has put him into millions of homes and you get the impression fame doesn’t sit too comfortably on his shoulders.
As the conversation segues into personal territory, he is reluctant to be drawn on the details of his family, preferring them to be kept out of media boundaries as much as possible. “I found it hard at first and I had to do a lot of introspective thinking about why I’m doing this. But I try to have compassion for those people (trolls) and now I just ignore the negative comments,” he laughs.
This forgiving attitude is all part of the secret to Chatterjee; he is content and settled, his modus operandi to help people achieve optimal health. Half-way through our interview he pauses to ask whether I’m getting the information I need because, due to a hectic schedule, he’s feeling a bit foggy and he’s “worried he’s not being clear enough”. Self-deprecation with a hint of someone whose day involves dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s.
As a doctor, no stone is left unturned. He is enthusiastic about ‘solving’ the problem. But I wonder whether half the battle is changing the patient’s way of thinking. “That is a challenge,” he admits. “Ultimately, it’s up to the patient but often it’s about awareness, that’s the first step to change. Whether you’re trying to prevent getting sick, you are sick or you want more energy, I’m giving suggestions that I think are reasonable and achievable for people. I want you to be able to lift the book off the shelf and pick up a few tips. It won’t cost you anything; there’s no gym equipment, supplements or memberships to get. It’s a toolkit on how to live well everyday. The rest is up to you.”
As I stroll out into the cool January air, it starts to snow. My thoughts turn to the impending traffic and my to-do list. Instead I find the nearest bench and take five minutes, the rest is up to me.
‘The 4 Pillar Plan — How to Relax, Eat, Move, Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life’ by Dr Rangan Chatterjee is published by Penguin Life at £16.99